From my first day of kindergarten to my high school graduation, school always seemed to come easy to me. Perhaps it was because I was one of the older kids in my class, as my birthday is in November, or perhaps it was because the traditional style of teaching just happened to perfectly match my style of learning. I’m not exactly sure why I seemed to do well in school naturally, but I can say with absolute confidence that it wasn’t because of my effort. On the contrary, my specialty in school was procrastinating until the very last minute and then putting forth the absolute minimum amount of effort necessary to get straight A’s.
In retrospect, getting good grades wasn’t really important to me. I did it because it was important to my parents and it gave me clout among my peers, which was incredibly valuable as fitting in was of the utmost importance. More out of convenience than because of a thirst for knowledge, I always excelled in school. Unfortunately, I don’t think I learned very much, and I’m not convinced that anyone else did either.
Can you name the 17th President of the United States? How about the sixth planet in our solar system from the sun? What was the central theme of “To Kill a Mockingbird”? And last but not least, what is the formula to calculate the area of a circle?
If someone were able to answer all four of these very common questions, I believe they would be the exception to the rule. Though most all of us knew these answers at some point in time, the purpose for our knowledge was solely to pass some sort of multiple-choice test and as soon as we received the grade for that test, we purged the knowledge and moved on to the next subject.
Unfortunately, while someone who is able to regurgitate information might appear to be well informed about a particular subject, their short-term memorization of data provides no actual long-term benefits as true knowledge is gained through hands-on experimentation, evaluation, and failure. In other words, memorization is not equivalent to authentic learning. Memorization is just reciting what your teacher wants to hear, regardless of whether you believe it or not.
Learn by Doing
On a regular basis, I hear students say that they are “visual learners”, as if to say that most other people prefer to learn by reading out of textbooks with no pictures and that they are somehow the exception to the rule. I find this comedic for two reasons: First, most everyone prefers to see something demonstrated rather than read about it in a textbook and second, you don’t actually learn how to do something by watching someone else do it, so the term “visual learner” is inaccurate anyway.
While I could sit back and watch Tiger Woods hit a million golf balls in a row, there is zero chance of me stepping up and ripping one down the center of the fairway if I haven’t ever swung a golf club before. The same goes for watching LeBron James shoot a basketball, watching Albert Einstein solve a mathematical equation, watching Yo-Yo Ma play the cello, or watching Jerry Seinfeld tell a joke. We don’t actually learn by watching. We learn by doing.
For example, a baby doesn’t learn to walk by just watching their parents walk around. While watching exposes them to the idea that walking is possible, they learn by actually trying to walk and subsequently falling. As a matter of fact, it is through trial and error and the failure of falling that a baby actually learns to walk.
From this perspective, a more accurate mantra would be that we “Learn by Failing”. Since failure is so essential to gaining knowledge, it is in our best interest not to fear or even avoid failure. This is not to say that we should become comfortable with failure or be satisfied in our failure, but more so understand that failure is a huge part of the learning process and that in order to succeed, we must first be willing to try and fail.
One-Size Does Not Fit All
For the record, Andrew Johnson was the 17th President, Saturn is the sixth planet from the sun, “To Kill a Mockingbird” is about racial injustice and the loss of innocence, and !”# will give you the area of a circle. As I hear at least a few people a week mention that they aren’t good at math, I would be very surprised to hear that many people got that formula right.
Which begs the question: What can we do to improve our public education system?
Rather than simply start ranting about how broken our public education system is, I specifically posed this question from a Posifocus perspective and used the word “we”, because I’m convinced it is our collective responsibility as a society to help make the changes necessary. Whether you’re a parent or a student, an educator or simply a tax paying citizen, you have a right and a duty to contribute positively to the betterment of our communities.
So, what can “we” do?
I believe we should start by understanding that not everyone learns in the same manner or at the same pace. Just because two people are born within twelve months of each other doesn’t necessarily mean that they are, or should even be expected to be, at the same level of competency in a given subject, much less in all subjects. Where one student might excel in the fine arts, that same student might struggle with math. Likewise, a student who excels at math might not perform as well when it comes to creative writing. Unfortunately, our current system uses the same delivery method on the same timeline for all students, regardless of their past performance or their level of engagement.
This lockstep methodology limits the students who show proficiency in a given subject from reaching their highest potential and discourages the struggling students even more as they fall further behind. In order to give both the proficient and struggling students the attention that they need, we must move away from a one size fits all delivery approach and move towards a model of individualized instruction.
As a community college educator with ten years of experience, the student population I interact with on a daily basis in my Web Development & Graphic Design program is far more diverse than any standard high school or university classroom. Not only do the students range in age from sixteen to seventy-five, but their education levels literally vary from a G.E.D. to a Ph.D. with their work histories including everything from Accountants, Lawyers, Army Brigadier Generals, and Nurses to Construction Workers, Custodians, Stay-at-home Moms, and Wedding DJs. With such diverse backgrounds, it would be an enormous waste of time and resources to present each of these students with the exact same instruction at the exact same pace. While some of them would be bored because the pace was too slow, others would be frustrated because the pace was too fast.
As an educator of a diverse population, I don’t see my purpose as solely ensuring that all students meet a minimum standard or requirement. Instead, though all students must meet the minimum requirement, my actual goal is to help each student find what they are passionate about and then help them reach their full potential, whatever that may be. For a student with an accounting background, they might have a higher aptitude for the analytics involved in tracking a website’s performance, where the stay-at-home mom with an Associate Degree in Photography might excel more in our vector animation course.
Either way, my goal is to guide them along a path in which they can excel individually.
At a standard high school, though students do have some individualization through their elective courses, once they are in that course everything is still in a lockstep format. With the only measure of performance being standardized letter grades, students who are passionate about a particular subject are disincentivized to reach their full potential because they can’t get higher than an “A” and grades are the only thing that matters. So even if you were capable of learning more, there isn’t much motivation from the school to do so.
But what if letter grades weren’t our only measure of success?
What if, instead of tests and letter grades, we focused more on projects and portfolios where students actually got their hands dirty and created something other than a report or a completed Scantron sheet? Rather than measuring a student’s success solely by their GPA, what if we were able to look at their entire body of work?
Starting in middle school, what if each student was required to choose a topic that they were interested in and then their goal for the year was to create a curriculum that taught other people about their topic? In each class, they would complete all of their assignments using their chosen topic as the data source and each assignment would contribute to their overall curriculum. For example, if I choose the National Basketball Association (NBA) as my topic in my seventh-grade year, my English assignments would be to read books about the NBA and write articles about the NBA. My math assignments would require me to calculate players’ stats and create projections for their career totals. My art assignments would revolve around creating visuals that supported my articles and projections that came from my English and math classes. In science, I would learn about why different elevations impact a player’s performance and in biology I would study what sports drink is most effective. Aside from history, almost every curriculum could be adapted to suit each student’s chosen topic.
But where are the teachers going to find the time to adapt each student’s curriculum, you ask?
By eliminating live lectures and replacing them with video lectures, faculty members can deliver streamlined content that improves student retention while at the same time expanding their ability to work with students one-on-one.
Currently, the average high school class size in the United States is 25 students. Considering an average class length of 45 minutes (or 90 minutes every other day), the average instructor could only provide a maximum of 1.8 minutes of one-on-one instruction to each student. But this is assuming that there aren’t any interruptions; no roll call, no disruptive students, and no logistical announcements. Once we take into account these disruptions, the maximum individual instruction time drops to just 84 seconds/student.
On the contrary, when an instructor shifts from giving live lectures to delivering pre-recorded video lectures, their time for individual instruction increases exponentially.
Here’s how it works:
An instructor would start out by recording a lecture, either in front of a live audience or simply sitting in front of their computer. Once the lecture is recorded, they would edit the recording, taking out all the mistakes and adding in supplemental content, like relevant video clips, graphics, audio, and title overlays, making the lecture as dynamic and succinct as possible. From there, the instructor would upload the video to the internet and make it available for all students, both inside and outside of the classroom.
With all of the lectures available online, students would be free to consume them repeatedly and at their own pace. Now, rather than an advanced student becoming bored with the slow pace of the curriculum, they can fast forward through the parts of the lecture they are already familiar with and move on to the hands-on assignment. Likewise, a struggling student will no longer have to miss out on content because they were too embarrassed to raise their hands and slow the rest of the class down. Instead, they can simply rewind and watch the part they didn’t understand again.
Not only is this delivery method better for the students, it is also better for the instructor. Rather than giving the same lecture repeatedly throughout the day, now they only have to give the lecture once. This added focus ensures that each instructor is delivering a quality product to every single student as opposed to lectures with varying degrees of quality, depending on what time of day the lecture is given. Because the first lecture of the day is always a little rough, the third is really great, the fifth is right after lunch, and the instructor is worn out by the last one.
So, rather than have instructors who are both bored with the content and short on time due to repeatedly giving the same lecture, an instructor would now have the time and patience to develop advanced curriculum for the advanced students and work one-on-one with the struggling students.
Yes, the upfront work of creating video lectures does require more preparation and effort than simply preparing for a one- time lecture, but most lectures should last for a few years before they need to be updated. Obviously, lectures on current events and pop culture wouldn’t be suited for this type of delivery, but math, history, English, and science lectures could very well remain the same for an extended period of time.
I first adopted this model of pre-recorded online video lectures about five years ago and I am confident that the benefits outweigh any disadvantages. My current classroom setup has the feel of an open lab where students can come and go. They can watch the lectures online or in the classroom and ask as many or as few questions as they want as I am always available to them, since I’m not in the middle of delivering live lectures. In our one-on-one interactions, we are able to explore their topics of interest in depth, or simply review topics that they don’t quite understand. Candidly, once I get the same question from two or three students, I go back and edit the video lecture to include or clarify the idea that was causing the confusion so that I don’t ever hear that question again.
Having so much individual interaction with each student allows the instructor to get to know each student so much better. From their interests and hobbies, to their hopes and dreams, having the time to go beyond the strict scope of the curriculum and make personal connections empowers both students and teachers. It empowers the students to ask for the type of support they need, and it empowers teachers to adapt their instruction for the wide variety of personalities that make up a classroom, thus making everyone’s efforts more engaging and effective.
Something Has To Change
Before folks get all riled up about how video lectures won’t work for everyone, or that individualized instruction isn’t realistic, my goal in sharing this methodology isn’t to prescribe a one-size-fits-all solution, as that is what we currently have in our education system. Instead, my motivation for sharing comes from the idea that different models can and do work. While there will always be advantages and disadvantages to each methodology, we can’t let that stop us from moving away from our current system. The technological tools our children presently have available to them in their pockets are exponentially more powerful than anything that was available to graduate students even twenty years ago. For us to not take full advantage of these tools is a huge mistake, especially if the reason behind our reluctance is that “change is scary.” It is time for us to move beyond our comfort zones and make radical, comprehensive advancements in our education system, both for the sake of our children and our society as a whole.
Bonnie and I believe that the traditional lockstep system is in such desperate need of reform that we have chosen a hybrid- homeschool model for our children. In this model, they attend a local charter school for a day and a half each week and are homeschooled with us for the rest of the time. While the charter school delivers instruction in science, history, and arts, we are responsible for teaching the subjects of math, reading, and language arts, and they provide us with the curriculum of our choosing. Additionally, we can elect to receive specialized weekly classes through the charter school from small business vendors in the community like the local dance academy, gymnastics studio, and aquatic center.
So far, this model has worked wonderfully for our family. Not only has it provided incredible flexibility in our schedules, but the combination of some group instruction and a significant amount of individualized instruction has empowered us to move at a pace that fits our children perfectly. On top of that, we get to choose the curriculums that suit us best.
As a computer engineer and public school educator who teaches computer programming, I intimately understand the deficiency that Americans have when it comes to their math skills. In fact, I have someone telling me that they “aren’t good at math” at least once every few days. So, I wasn’t surprised when the results of the latest Pew Research Center report said the United States is ranked 39th in the world in Math.
When the time came to pick which math curriculum we were going to use in our homeschool, the choice was simple. Rather than look for titles that I was familiar with or publishers that were common in the U.S., I went back to the Pew Research report. If the U.S. was ranked 39th in math, who was ranked first?
It turns out that Singapore is the worldwide leader in math, science, and reading proficiency and that a group of elementary educators had already gone to Singapore to learn their teaching methods and develop a curriculum based on their best practices. As such, though I wasn’t taught using the Singapore Math curriculum and I wasn’t even familiar with their style or methodology of instruction, I was confident that they were doing something right and that it would be in our best interest to at least give it a try.
Over the past year, I can confirm that the Singapore Math curriculum is working great for our daughter. It is incredibly intuitive, and everything is based on real world scenarios. Whether it is the best curriculum is debatable as I haven’t tested all of the different methodologies available from all thirty-eight of the other countries that outperform the U.S. in math. However, I can say that it is superior to the U.S. curriculums in that the focus isn’t on memorizing answers to equations as much as it is discovering how to solve problems.
But is it different from the way I learned math thirty-five years ago?
It absolutely is and I see this difference as a tremendous asset to its potential effectiveness. While some parents tend to rant on social media about how ridiculous current teaching methods are because they aren’t the same methods that they were taught with, I am pleasantly surprised to see new methods employed. The old methods are to blame for the U.S. being ranked 39th in the world! To keep utilizing them while expecting a different outcome is insanity. To improve our proficiency, we have to change our methodology.
Real World Skills
In addition to alternative teaching methods, I also believe that the content of the curriculum needs to be radically shifted. As opposed to learning trigonometry, it seems much more beneficial for teenager to learn how to balance a budget, how credit cards work, the advantages and disadvantages of student loans, what income tax brackets are, what taxes pay for, and how the mortgage industry makes money off of interest.
Though these real-world skills are 100% necessary in every adults’ life, most adults don’t ever fully comprehend them, much less teach these lessons to their children.
In addition to the video lectures, alternative curriculums, and individualized instruction, we are also supplementing our children’s education with a variety of iOS Apps that have been specifically designed to engage young minds. Here are a few of the titles we utilize and highly recommend:
Numbers by Dragonbox
Numbers introduces children to numbers and walks them through addition, subtraction, all the way through advanced algebra in a fun, game-like environment. I credit this app for laying the foundation for my oldest daughter’s advanced aptitude in her math curriculum and I’m now beginning to use it with my second child. Ages 4+.
Piano Maestro by JoyTunes
Growing up in a family of humble financial means, playing an instrument wasn’t a huge focus for us, though I always saw it as an amazing talent to have. While many of my childhood friends took piano lessons, most all of them saw it as a chore and disliked the classical songs they were forced to practice and play. So, when Bonnie and I were given the opportunity to expose our kids to music, we wanted it to be something they would be passionate about and not something they saw as a chore. Thus, we decided to forego the traditional weekly lesson with a piano teacher and instead opted to go the high-tech route.
I bought an electric piano with weighted keys and hooked the midi port to an iPad where the Piano Maestro app can recognize each keystroke that is played. Then, in the same style as a Guitar Hero video game, the app shows you what notes to play and gives you a score at the end of each song, all while intuitively teaching you how to read sheet music. Over the past year, my daughter has learned to play dozens of modern songs from a variety of different genres. Ages 5+.
Khan Academy for Kids
This is a curated collection of activities, books, videos, and coloring pages that engages students in Head Start and Common Core subjects like early literacy, language, and math, while encouraging creativity and building social-emotional skills. Both my two-year-old and four-year-old love it! Ages 2-6.
Magnus Kingdom of Chess by Dragonbox
This adventure game teaches kids how to play chess, one piece and one move at a time. Again, in a video game environment. After having completed this course, my six-year-old and I are able to play games of speed chess together, on a real chess board, with ease. Ages 5+.
This is an in-home, technology-delivered kindergarten readiness program that gives preschool-aged children individualized reading, math and science instruction. We start our kids on this program at age four and we are confident that it has laid a great foundation for their future learning. Age 4-5.
This online curriculum provides exercises, activities, and games that build phonics, vocabulary, spelling, grammar, pronunciation, fluency, and comprehension skills. In other words, it teaches kids to read using a time-tested, research- driven approach that helps students master decoding skills and grow in every area needed for reading success. Ages 5+.
If I had the opportunity to go back and do high school all over again, knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t go. Knowing what I know now, plain and simple, I would have skipped it all together. Between the ridiculous social pressures and the mediocre educational experience, the negatives of high school far out-weight the positives. The average American high school is so toxic that the majority of people I know spent the entirety of their twenties figuring out that all of the social practices that they learned in high school were, in fact, bullshit.
Hopefully by the time my kids reach their teenage years, the entire high school model will have been overhauled. If not, I am extremely confident that we will find an alternative route for them to learn whatever information they need without having to be subjected to this unhealthy environment. Rather than be concerned with what clique people are in or who does and doesn’t have the cool shoes/jeans/car, I want my kids to be focused on the truly valuable aspects of life.
While I may be sour on the high school experience in the U.S., I do appreciate the college experience for the value it provides. At the same time, I definitely don’t think that a four- year degree is essential for everyone.
According to a recent (April 2018) NBC News report, just 25% of high school seniors are able to do grade-level math and just 37% score proficient in reading. Yet 84% of students are graduating high school on time and 70% are enrolling in college directly after high school, of which only 26% go on to graduate college within 6 years. Coupled with the fact that student loan debt in the U.S. is above $1.5 trillion, which is three times more than what Americans owe on credit cards, it is painfully apparent that our system of higher education isn’t working for everyone.
Though there are many smaller problems that exist within four-year universities like limited course availability and luxury student housing that is unnecessary, the biggest issue is that the value our society places on a four-year degree isn’t consistent with the value it actually provides. Overwhelmingly, the majority of Americans have been told from a very young age that if they get good grades and go to a good college, a high paying job and a fulling life would be waiting for them upon graduation. Unfortunately, though that may have been true in the mid-1960s when there were less than five million Americans attending college, current college enrollment has increased over 400% while the American population has only grown 60% over the same time period. Statistically speaking, college graduates just aren’t as rare as they used to be. Even more detrimental is the fact that colleges are producing more graduates than our industries need, which is creating an entire demographic of young people that are overeducated, underemployed, and have an average student debt of more than $33,000 each.
So why is it that every student is being encouraged to attend college?
Is it due to the misconception that a college degree is a requirement for all high paying jobs? Or is it because jobs that don’t require a college degree carry a negative stigma? Or perhaps it is because parents believe that if their children don’t attend college then they themselves will be viewed as failures? Regardless of the motivation behind this misguided pressure, the truth is that a college degree is not the sole ingredient of a fruitful career and a wonderful life. From welders and machinists, to diesel mechanics and even computer programmers, there are many high paying jobs that provide wonderful benefits and great work-life balance that don’t require a college degree.
Will My Kids Go To College?
For starters, it depends on whether or not the industry of their desired profession requires a degree. If they want to be a doctor, lawyer, or engineer, then a college degree is the price of admission. But if their goal is to be a restaurant owner, a professional musician, or a contractor, then I would let them know there are alternative paths to those careers that don’t require a diploma.
If they are like most young people and aren’t 100% ready to commit to one specific career field, I would advise them to pursue internships, apprenticeships, and even job shadowing opportunities in their fields of interest in order to get a solid idea of what that career entails. Unlike the many people that think college is a great place to find yourself and figure out what you want to be, I don’t think that taking out a couple hundred- thousand dollars in student loans is a wise investment, as there are many less expensive places to find oneself. For example, a person could take an international backpacking trip for about $5000 dollars and find themselves or better yet, they could spend a summer working manual labor, earning a fair salary and find themselves. While finding yourself away at college can be an absolute blast, it is definitely the most expensive route with no guarantee that you will actually find a major you are passionate about or even finish.
Though I have a bachelor’s degree from a prestigious private university that has served me very well in my career, I haven’t been a very big proponent of bachelor’s degrees for much of the past decade because of all the negative aspects that I’ve already listed. Even so, there is one asset that college degrees provide across the board: They show that you are capable of finishing what you start.
Unfortunately, despite the extraordinary tuition costs and the extreme lengths that colleges and universities take in order to increase their application rates and enrollment, these institutions do very little to make sure that their students actually have the support and guidance they need to complete their course of study. As such, there are an unlimited amount of opportunities to quit school, which is why 74% of all students who enroll end up dropping out. But, for the 25% that do finish, though they might not necessarily have the skills necessary to enter the workforce and many are strapped with enormous financial debt, that piece of paper serves as proof that they’re not a quitter.
Education Starts at Home
By now, I think I’ve made it evident that Bonnie and I aren’t interested in simply outsourcing our children’s education to the government-run public school system. While wonderful, highly qualified, life-changing educators do exist in public schools, our experience has been that they are the exception to the rule. As such, we have chosen to take the lead in curating curriculum and advocating for our children’s education by using all of the resources available to us, including the public school system when appropriate. This doesn’t mean that we ourselves are going to teach our children entire curriculums on every subject. Instead, it means that we are going to choose who they learn from, what they learn, and when/where they learn.
As opposed to blindly sending them to school for seven hours each day with the only measure of success being a quarterly letter grade and G.P.A., we are choosing to be more involved, because we can. For single parents who work multiple jobs and don’t have the luxury of homeschooling, I completely understand their need to rely solely on the public school system.
But for my family, we have the luxury of time and resources that we can dedicate to our children’s education and believe that it is our responsibility to do so.
Rather than fight against an existing system, our goal is to take what works within the system and supplement it with all of the new and effective assets that we have at our disposal. Thus, making the system works for us, as opposed to us working for the system.
Posifocus Mantra #11
We Learn by Doing.
Have you ever been scared to try something new? Has a fear of failure ever held you back? What did the traditional education system teach you to expect of the world?
Learn something new that you’ve always wanted to learn! Take an online class or go to a conference workshop. There are so many ways to learn. Invest in yourself and then teach it to someone else.
Join the Posifocus Group and share your thoughts and experiences with the Posifocus Community! Use the hashtag #traditionaleducation.